At the beginning of The Children, Edith Wharton's hapless protagonist Martin Boyne laments that he never meets an interesting person while travelling. As he begins his voyage across the Atlantic, however, he meets not one interesting person, but seven: seven children travelling-escaping rather-under the protection of the eldest sister, Judith Wheater, and their sturdy nanny, Miss Horatia Scope ("Scopy"). They are escaping their parents, who happen to be old acquaintances of Boyne's. He fears at first that Judy is his college chum's second wife and watches in horror as she mothers the youngest children: "Lord-the child's ever so much too heavy for her. Must have been married out of the nursery: damned cad, not to-" (5). He soon understands his mistake, but by the time the ship docks in France his morbid curiosity about the Wheater party has led him into the maze of their private arrangements.
Martin Boyne is a careful man. He has never married despite being over forty and having committed the seemingly incautious act of being long in love with a married woman, Rose Sellars, now a widow. He is travelling to spend time with her in a reclusive alpine resort. With typical Boyne caution, they plan to wait until her year of mourning is over before they declare themselves. After the Wheater children, particularly the fetching Judy ("Jove-if a fellow was younger!" ), follow him there, Boyne is inspired to be less cautious. But Rose cannot seem to adapt to a different lover than the one she has always known. In sharp contrast, Boyne's old friend Wheater has been married three times, twice to the same woman-from whom he is again divorcing. Joyce Wheater, the same wife known long ago by Boyne, has also been married variously and the two have brought to their second marriage to each other an assortment of half- and stepchildren. Neglected collectively by all of their parents and step-parents, and frightened by the recent suicide of a friend being raised in hotels (as they will surely be if divided up among their "society" parents), they have sworn an oath on Scopy's big book of nursery remedies to stay together. Unlike Boyne, The Children are impassioned, flighty, and interesting. Boyne is hooked. When they flee their parents, he agrees to help them. The entrancing Judy complicates his affairs.
This is a strange little novel -- more about what doesn't happen than about what happens. It shares with Wharton's House of Mirth, Age of Innocence, and Summer a dreary, ineluctable pallor. I have the sense that it is burdened by Wharton's own unresolved family secrets and abandonments. But it has neither the style nor the pathos of her more-read novels. Boyne himself can't admit that he loves the teenaged Judith, not even when his fiancée points this fact out to him. Unlike Summer's lawyer Royall, Boyne will not take charge of Judy's fate-or his own. While I can't help objecting to Royall's handling of Charity, Wharton has cast a different set of boundaries here: it is difficult to admire Boyne for not pursuing Judith Wheater.
The Childrenis worth reading, particularly for those interested in Wharton's literature of abandonment and pseudo-adoption. But the other novels that share its themes at least conclude with Wharton's typically stripped-of-meaning symbolism (the wedding at the end ofSummer, for instance). If The Children has a curious power, it may reside in the absolute bleakness of its ending.
--Contributed by Bethany Reid, Everett Community College